Do You See What I See? Two Holiday Exhibitions and a “Christmas in the Castle” Tour

Glencairn Museum News | Number 11, 2017

Karen Loccisano and R. Michael Palan, a husband-and-wife team of professional artists from Bridgewater, New Jersey, have been crafting this three-dimensional Flemish Nativity scene together since 2014. Their work has been influenced by several Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painters. The Nativity of Jesus Christ is depicted as taking place in a snowy, 16th-century Flemish village. Karen and Michael have included an angel with Down syndrome in this Nativity, standing near the Holy Family. Photo by R. Michael Palan.

In 2009 Glencairn Museum began an ongoing initiative to acquire three-dimensional Nativity scenes for our annual holiday exhibition, World Nativities. The goal of this exhibition is to show the universal appeal of the Nativity story, and how individuals around the world seek to give it relevance by relating it to their own spiritual, intellectual, cultural, or regional environments. This year many of the Nativities in our exhibition are on loan from individual artists, the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, and the National Christmas Center & Museum in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia.

World Nativities is co-curated annually by Glencairn’s curator, Ed Gyllenhaal, and museum researcher Kirsten Hansen Gyllenhaal. According to Ed, “We work hard to develop relationships with other institutions that have collections of Nativity art, and with contemporary Nativity artists worldwide. This year we’re exhibiting and interpreting 40 Nativity scenes from 20 countries. Kathleen Glenn Pitcairn, an artisan with a background in stage design, has provided artistic settings for nearly all of these Nativities.”


Figure 1: Artist Karen Loccisano (left) and Kirsten Hansen Gyllenhaal, one of the co-curators of the World Nativities exhibition, discuss the Flemish Nativity, made by Karen and her husband, Michael Palan. Photo by R. Michael Palan.


For the fifth year in a row, Glencairn has been fortunate to exhibit original Nativity scenes by Karen Loccisano and R. Michael Palan. Michael is from Northeast Philadelphia, and Karen grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey. The married couple have both been illustrators for children’s publications, including Highlights magazine. For the past decade they have been working together designing Christmas ornaments for Kurt S. Adler, Inc. They also use their talents to create handcrafted, highly detailed Nativity scenes, which they make available to the general public at a variety of venues each holiday season. Since 2014 Karen and Michael have been collaborating on a three-dimensional Flemish Nativity made from polymer clay, Styrofoam, wood and cardboard (lead photo, Figures 1 and 2). According to Michael, 

“When we first saw the painting, The Census at Bethlehem, by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (in 1566), we were intrigued by the image of Mary and Joseph in a snowy, 16th-century Flemish village. After studying paintings of other Flemish masters, the one thing that struck us was that we had not come across any three-dimensional images of the Flemish Nativity. This work, along with our other Nativity projects, are things that we live with and work on over a period of years.”


Figure 2: Three wise men arrive at the stable with gifts for the Christ Child. This three-dimensional Flemish Nativity was made by Karen Loccisano and her husband R. Michael Palan. Photo by R. Michael Palan.


Michael crafted the architecture, furniture, and most of the details in the scene. Karen sculpted and dressed the human figures and also made the animals. “Karen looked at artwork of the Madonna and Child by various Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painters such as Hans Memling, Jan van Eyck and Pieter Bruegel. The most striking feature is Mary’s long blond hair. Later in our research we discovered another 16th-century Flemish painting titled, The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1515). The painting depicts an angel with all the characteristics of a child with Down syndrome, and is believed to be the earliest visual depiction of Down syndrome. We have included an angel with Down syndrome in this Nativity standing close by the Holy Family, welcoming the birth of the Christ Child.”


Figure 3: Piccolo Presepe (Italian for small Nativity scene), made by R. Michael Palan, is set within Roman ruins at the top of an Italian village. The scene includes more than sixty tiny figures. Photo by R. Michael Palan.


A much smaller Nativity scene in Glencairn’s exhibition, made by Michael Palan, is set within Roman ruins at the top of a small but bustling Italian village. As wise men present gifts to the Christ Child, life goes on as usual, with villagers seemingly unaware of the miraculous event taking place in their midst. The scene includes more than sixty tiny figures made from polymer clay—most measuring seven-eighths of an inch tall. Characters familiar from traditional Italian Nativity scenes are present, including a sleeping shepherd, a Turkish marching band, Pulcinella (a clown-like character wearing a mask), and even a devil hiding in a cave. 


Figure 4: The use of tweezers was necessary to place many of the smallest items in this Nativity scene, set in a bustling Italian village. Photo by R. Michael Palan.


Africa is especially well represented in the World Nativities exhibition this year, with Nativities from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Another highlight is a large 19th- and 20th-century Presepio (an Italian Nativity scene from the city of Naples), on loan to Glencairn from the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia for the second year in a row.


Figure 5: This representation of the Holy Family was carved by Vernon Nyagweta, a sculptor from Zimbabwe. The stone is a form of serpentine called “springstone.” The outer layer is a rich reddish brown, while the interior is a deep greenish color. The faces and hands are waxed and polished, giving the piece a tri-color effect. On loan from the Knights of Columbus Museum, New Haven, Connecticut.


Figure 6: This Nativity was made in Kenya by a member of the Samburu tribe from mud, dung, paint, and cloth. The Samburu are a semi-nomadic ethnic group inhabiting northern Kenya. They share a common language with the Maasai and wear the same form of dress—brightly colored shukas. The figures in this Nativity are dressed in traditional shukas. The Samburu believe in one supreme god, Nkai. Today some Samburu have adopted Christianity. On loan from the Knights of Columbus Museum, New Haven, Connecticut.


Figure 7: This Nativity was sculpted in Ghana by Mohammed Amin. Amin, a member of the Dagomba tribe, depicts Mary and Joseph as Dagomba. The hut, typical of northern Ghana, is made of mud and has a thatched roof. In 1996 one of Amin’s Nativities won first place in Bellingham, Washington, at the International Creche Festival. On loan from the Knights of Columbus Museum, New Haven, Connecticut.


Figure 8: This Nativity was carved in Malawi in southeastern Africa by Van Nyasulu. Van was taught how to carve by his father, Symon, starting at the age of six. This Nativity is made from Afromosia wood and depicts the Holy Family under a hut, surrounded by animals, including a giraffe, elephant, lion and rhinoceros.


Figure 9: This Nativity was made by artisans in Burkina Faso, West Africa, using the ancient technique of lost wax casting. Each figure is first modeled in beeswax, then covered with a layer of clay, with a hole left at the top of the clay layer. The clay is then left to harden in the sun, after which the piece is held briefly in a fire so that the beeswax inside the clay melts. The bronze is prepared by melting scrap metal over a fire, and once it has become liquid it is poured into the clay mold. When the metal has hardened the outer clay layer is broken and removed. The bronze pieces are then rubbed with sand to give them a smooth finish. On loan from the National Christmas Center & Museum, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.


Figure 10: The 100+ figures in this large 19th- and 20th-century Presepio were collected in Italy over a period of more than thirty years by the late Elizabeth Anne Evans of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. A Presepio, which has been called "the translation of the Bible into Neapolitan dialect,” represents daily life in 18th-century Naples, a bustling port city. The miracle of the Nativity is depicted as taking place amid crumbling Roman ruins, signifying the end of paganism and the dawn of Christianity. On loan from the Fleisher Art Memorial, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Figure 11: This large 19th- and 20th-century Italian Presepio, on loan from the Fleisher Art memorial in Philadelphia, PA, was assembled in Glencairn’s Great Hall in late October in order to accommodate a visit from the Friends of the Creche, a national Nativities organization. This year the annual convention of the Friends was held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.


Figure 12: This presentation of a Nativity “in the round,” nestled inside an antique French cloche (a glass covering for garden plants to prevent frost damage), features many finely crafted details, including handmade trees, crumbling ancient bricks, dove houses above the roof, and a small stream. The setting was created by Navidad Nativities of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and the figures were carved from mountain maple and painted in the studios of Ulrich Perathoner at Val Gardena in the Italian Alps. On loan from Navidad Nativities, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. 


Figure 13: In the years before World War II, Germany was one of the leading exporters of Nativities to the United States. Exports from Germany were discontinued during the war, but production of Nativities resumed immediately thereafter. This Nativity was manufactured in the British Zone of Occupation in northern Germany and exported to the United States between 1945 and 1949. It was used during the Christmas season by a family in Newark, New Jersey, for at least 50 years. The set was displayed in the living room, either under the Christmas tree or on a nearby table.


Figure 14: This Nativity, known as a szopka, was made in Poland by Kazimierz Stopinski. The unique folk tradition of the szopka dates to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with the portable theaters made for Nativity puppet plays. It takes the form of an elaborate building facade in which the tiny figures of the Holy Family are surrounded with fanciful architectural features similar to those seen on Krakow’s historic buildings. Every year since 1937 a szopka-building competition has been held in Krakow’s market square. Stopinski has won first prize three times for his entries (medium and small category), most recently in 2015. On loan from the Knights of Columbus Museum, New Haven, Connecticut.


Figure 15: This contemporary Nativity by Arizona artist Daina Meyer has materials and colors associated with the southwest—red clay, copper and turquoise. A simple flared stem forms the bodies for the human figures. Copper wire is bent and twisted to create halos, crowns and wings. Each piece is entirely wheel-thrown. Meyer’s work is informed by her Catholic faith, which she says is “interwoven into my daily routine, it remains both a prayer and a calling, that I am able to witness my faith through my work.” On loan from Joralyn and Thane Glenn.


Figure 16: Raymond Pitcairn was still living at Cairnwood with his wife and children in the 1920s when he commissioned Winfred Sumner Hyatt (1891-1959) to design and build the family’s three-part Nativity scene. (Hyatt was the principal stained glass artist and designer for Bryn Athyn Cathedral and later Glencairn.) These scenes continue to be placed on exhibit each year during the holiday season in Glencairn’s Upper Hall. In addition to the Nativity scenes made for the Raymond Pitcairn family, Hyatt went on to make similar scenes for Bryn Athyn Cathedral, the Harold Pitcairn family (Raymond’s brother), and the Eisenhower White House. 


The World Nativities exhibition aims to show the universal appeal of the Nativity story, and how artisans around the world have responded to it. Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes, on the other hand, attempts to explain the origin and meaning of the visual images and symbols that have traditionally been included in these scenes. 


Figure 17: Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes, a special exhibition in the library section of Glencairn's Great Hall, was designed to complement Glencairn's annual World Nativities exhibition.


A Nativity scene may combine images from several different biblical accounts of the story of the birth of Christ. For example, the story of the wise men is told only in the Gospel of Matthew, and the story of the shepherds is told only in the Gospel of Luke, but many Nativity scenes include both wise men and shepherds. Nearly all Nativity scenes feature the Holy Family and the manger, but additional imagery (such as the ox and donkey) is sometimes added from non-biblical texts produced by early Christian writers, some of which may have originated in oral traditions. In addition, artisans may introduce new elements from their own imaginations. (For more information, see Glencairn Museum’s Web resource, Do You See What I See: Imagery in Nativity Scenes.)


Figure 18: One of the themes of the Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes exhibition presents the history and symbolism of the depiction of Mary in Nativity scenes.


Figure 19: Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes explores how additional imagery (such as the ox and donkey) is sometimes added to Nativities from non-biblical texts produced by early Christian writers.


How do you celebrate Christmas in a 20th-century castle? Glencairn’s 45-minute guided “Christmas in the Castle” tour reveals how Christmas was celebrated at Glencairn when it was the home of the Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn family, in addition to highlighting outstanding works of Nativity art throughout the building. Stops on the tour include the Great Hall, Upper Hall, Tower, Chapel, Master Bedroom, and Medieval Treasury. (At the conclusion of the tour visitors may explore the Museum’s World Nativities and Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes exhibitions at their own pace.)


Figure 20: One of the new additions to the “Christmas in the Castle” tour this year is a large, ride-on Steiff donkey, donated back to Glencairn by members of the Pitcairn family. When the Pitcairns lived at Glencairn it was placed each year beneath the Christmas tree.


One of the new additions to the “Christmas in the Castle” tour this year is a large, ride-on Steiff donkey, made by the famous Steiff factory in Germany in the late 1940s or early 50s. When Glencairn was a home (1940s to 1970s), the Pitcairn family’s large Christmas tree, which reached beyond the second-floor balcony, was placed in the Great Hall between the bookcases. A number of ride-on toys were kept beneath the tree each year; this large ride-on donkey was donated back to Glencairn by family members. Recently it was sent back to Steiff’s “Teddy Bear Clinic & Spa” in Giengen, Germany, where older toys are refurbished. One of the Pitcairn grandsons has wonderful memories of the ride-on toys during the Christmas season: “Nothing in my life ever exceeded the joy and fascination of unwrapping the latest version of the Steiff toys on wheels that were added every year. . . with any luck you’d get pushed by uncles and aunts to the envy of younger cousins.”


Figure 21: The “Christmas in the Castle” tour includes Mildred Pitcairn’s Christmas gown, which she wore annually at the Glencairn Christmas Sing over a period of many years. It was made from red velvet, and was probably designed for Mildred by her husband Raymond. Raymond designed a number of gowns for Mildred during their 55-year marriage.  


Figure 22: The “Christmas in the Castle” tour features a unique creation by Navidad Nativities of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. This custom Nativity setting was inspired by the art and architecture of Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn. The human and animal figures were hand carved in wood and dressed in starched fabric by Original Heide, a family business in the Italian Alps. 


A complete guide to "Christmas at Glencairn" is available online here.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.